There were no sound effects and certainly no cameras on hand when Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia turned an already entertaining argument over a traffic stop on a two-lane road in northern California into drama worthy of Hollywood.
Not even information that a carload of terrorists heading to Los Angeles with an atomic bomb would be enough to justify police stopping the car, if the tip came from an anonymous source, Scalia suggested Tuesday, using an extreme example to urge a lawyer for two suspects appealing their conviction to stand firm.
“I want you to say, ‘Let the car go. Bye-bye, LA,'” Scalia said, drawing laughter from the audience as well as some colleagues.
While the rest of Washington stayed home in the snow, the Supreme Court was in session Tuesday and the justices had what, for them, seemed a rollicking good time.
The legal issue before the court is whether an anonymous tip about reckless driving is enough under the Fourth Amendment for police to pull over a car, without an officer’s corroboration of dangerous driving.
Two brothers pleaded guilty to transporting marijuana after California Highway Patrol officers pulled over their silver Ford 150 pickup based on a report of reckless driving.
The officers did not observe erratic driving, but acted after dispatchers received a 911 call saying the vehicle had run the caller off the road and identifying it by its model, color and license plate. A subsequent search revealed four large bags of marijuana. The brothers argue in their appeal that the traffic stop violated their constitutional rights, based on an earlier high court ruling that anonymous tips by themselves ordinarily are not sufficient for police to detain or search someone.
The justices often try to test the arguments of the lawyers before them by hypothesizing about extreme positions. In this debate, Chief Justice John Roberts came up with a tip about a girl being tossed in the trunk of a car and kidnapped. Not enough, lawyer Paul Kleven said on behalf of the brothers.
“You get an A for consistency. I’m not sure about common sense,” Justice Anthony Kennedy said.
But Scalia proved a stricter grader, after Kleven hesitated to agree that the car with the nuclear weapon couldn’t be stopped. “That may be a situation, again, where the court decides that he risk is so great,” Kleven began before Scalia cut in.
“So you see, he’s not consistent,” the justice said.
Lawyers for California and the Obama administration, defending the traffic stop based on the anonymous tip, said keeping the public safe from drunken drivers outweighs the intrusion of a traffic stop. They said a tip about someone driving recklessly would be enough because reckless driving often follows having had too much to drink.
But Justice Sonia Sotomayor said people use the term “reckless” differently, suggesting she might not accept the governments’ argument.
Sotomayor gave as an example her mother, who doesn’t like it when the justice tops 50 miles per hour behind the wheel. “She thinks that when I’m going 51, I’m speeding and reckless,” Sotomayor said.
The case, Navarette v. California, 12-9490, will be decided by late June.